On Jan. 12, a new newspaper with a familiar look and mission hit the streets of brotherly love. In the spirit of a certain famous Philadelphian, The Philadelphia Independent, the work of editors Mattathias Schwartz and Benjamin Tiven, exists, according to the first issue’s “Note to the Reader,” to “connect the dots” between the “secret artists, poets and scholars” that walk our streets. The paper seeks to foster an inclusive and intelligent dialogue that would otherwise remain undocumented.
The paper, a massive 22-by-34-inch newsprint edition with a nameplate and layout echoing a bygone period of journalism, is available at book and record stores throughout the city. They’re also available in coin-operated boxes at 12 locations, including 13th Street and Berks Mall on Temple University’s campus.
After stints with the Gannett News Service, Associated Press and Indianapolis Star, Schwartz began planning for the Independent, early in the summer of 2000. Having spent much of his time sending out lottery numbers, recording high school basketball scores and writing about public swimming pool disasters and rave crackdowns, he itched to work in the interesting realm of journalism.
He teamed up with Tiven, photographer and editor of an academic writing program at Swarthmore College. The two then began to carve out their niche in the Philadelphia cultural landscape.
Likening themselves to Benjamin Franklin, who, in the words of Schwartz, “came here when he was about our age to do what we’re doing,” the two Swarthmore College graduates hope to improve public life by providing a useful and accessible newspaper.
But they are careful to stress the importance of Franklin, the figure who published the Pennsylvania Gazette, as opposed to the Franklin portrayed by advertising agencies.
Pointing specifically to the founding father’s visage on Absolut Vodka’s Market Street billboard, Tiven interprets that “there seems to be a belief in the world of advertising that you can slap Benjamin Franklin on any product to instantly give it credibility in Philadelphia. The historical Franklin and the man himself have been nearly lost beneath all this kitsch.”
The Independent seeks to resurrect Franklin’s spirit, the spirit of the free exchange of ideas, from the shallow grave advertisers have buried him in.
In an age where AOL/Time Warner, Knight Ridder and Gannett control massive chunks of media outlets, the editors are dedicated to keeping their paper free from the trappings of corporate media.
“If most newspapers sound alike it’s probably because they’re owned by a very small group of very rich individuals, who have very similar notions about how to make money selling words,” said Schwartz.
“But the Independent is not really opposed to any other newspaper,” Tiven said. “We’re just separate. They do their thing and we do ours.”
While the next issue, due out in time for First Friday on April 5, has taken nearly 180 days to complete, the Schwartz/Tiven duo are easing themselves into a regular release schedule. Issue number three is set to hit streets six months after number two. From thereafter, the editors plan to churn out 10,000 copies monthly. And for two people working out of their living room, that’s a pretty ambitious goal.
In addition, the two foresee generating much of their revenue from readers rather than from advertisers, a situation opposite to that of the majority of periodicals. In this way, they can insure that the paper’s first priority is its readers and not advertisers.
With this sharp focus on quality writing, the Independent aims to avoid the fate of certain other publications, which “seem to exist to please and draw money from their advertisers,” Schwartz said. “The only responsibility they have to readers is to be just interesting enough so they don’t get left on the racks.”
When asked about the Independent’s place in this city’s densely populated newspaper market, Tiven responded, “There’s plenty of room in Philadelphia for the Inquirer, the Metro, the weeklies and 20 other newspapers. I can’t wait to read the other 19.”
Richard Charles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org